TORONTO — The hot topic across Major League Soccer this week surrounded the U.S. men’s national team missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Ironically, Canada was at that World Cup in Mexico more than 30 years ago. Canadian and American soccer face similar issues, though there are strides being made on this side of the border.
The implementation of long-term player development, the Canadian Premier League, and the three Canadian MLS teams (along with their academies and USL affiliates) are providing more opportunities to players than ever before.
However, there is still plenty of work to be done, as evidenced in Toronto FC’s 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact on Sunday. Only three Canadian national team-eligible players started the match (Maxime Crepeau, Samuel Piette and Ballou Tabla), all of whom played for the Impact. Jonathan Osorio eventually checked into the game for TFC, while Patrice Bernier came off the bench for his 150th appearance with Montreal.
The heavier reliance on Canadians is nothing new for the Impact this season. They have given more minutes (5,231) and starts (56) to national team-eligible players than TFC or the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2017. That trust in youth is highly valued in Montreal, and it’s reaping rewards.
“I think this academy has done a very good job in producing players and pushing players,” said Impact coach Mauro Biello after the game. “The likes of [Anthony] Jackson-Hamel, Louis Beland-Goyette, Ballou Tabla, Crepeau, these are all products of our academy. It takes time to produce players, but over time, we’re starting to see the fruits of the work we’ve put in over the last years.”
Tabla, an academy graduate, was largely ineffective but Crepeau, another youth product, was solid in his second MLS start of 2017. Despite his limited appearances, the Impact’s No. 2 goalkeeper has been reliable when called upon in the league or Canadian Championship. The 23-year-old made a couple of clutch saves on Sebastian Giovinco and psyched him into smacking the post on two attempts from the penalty spot towards the end of the first half.
Ignacio Piatti missed Sunday’s game with a knee injury, so had he been fit, Tabla would have likely been on the bench. However, the 18-year-old has been a relatively consistent contributor, whether as a starter or a substitute.
Piette, meanwhile, earned his 10th straight start and his defensive contributions played a vital role in keeping TFC’s high-octane attack at bay, which did not go noticed by his coach.
“I think he closed off the middle, he won so many balls and he cut passing lanes in terms of balls in to Giovinco [and] balls in to Altidore,” said Biello. “He quickly started off the attack when he won those balls in transition, so for me, Sam was fantastic.”
The Impact midfielder has been key for Montreal since he was signed in August. Piette is also a vital player for the national team, and he’s pleased to see young Canadians earning more chances domestically.
“I think it’s looking very good. We’ve seen a lot of Canadian players playing in this league, in MLS. A lot of players coming from the academy. I know in Montreal we’ve got a very good system with the Montreal Impact academy. Good prospects, so I think it’s looking very bright for the future.”
Crepeau, who was on Canada’s Gold Cup squad this past summer, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s important to get Canadians, not only in the Canadian teams, but in the league as well. If you want to get a good national team, our players have to play everywhere. We need to play in any league, at any level, we need to get more minutes and quality minutes so our guys can improve.
“When I think about Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, we have some good Canadians coming up and we need to play some good minutes at a good level, to perform and to get our national team where we want to.”
Canada head coach Octavio Zambrano has also played a vital role. He leaned on young players at the Gold Cup, including Golden Boot winner Alphonso Davies, and allowed the team to show off its creativity. It has resulted in a proactive, possession-based system which saw the team reach the knockout stage for the first time since 2007.
“Octavio has a good mentality of how to play,” said Crepeau. “Keep possession and just to get the job done at the end of the day. I really like his style, it’s kind of like a South American type of football. We saw it at the Gold Cup this year. We had a good run. Unfortunately, we lost to Jamaica, and we felt that we wanted to go a little bit further than against Jamaica, but it is what it is.”
Perhaps 2019 and beyond is when Canada makes even bigger strides. Biello’s willingness to play Canadians helps the national team and the sport as a whole in this country. The CPL will be an even bigger boost in that regard.